Robert Plant Presents the Sensational Shape Shifters at Bayou Music Center, 6/21/2013
Robert Plant has nothing to prove at this point. So what is he doing starting another band?
As he becomes more of a lion in winter, the onetime golden god of '70s rock (and roll) has been coy about his long-term plans for this alliterative new project of his, if indeed he has any at all. But seeing how "Sensational Space Shifters" conjures up images of Barnumesque hokum and now-you-see-it prestidigitation -- magic, in other words -- and then listening to them perform for two solid hours, it's clear he's up to something.
It seemed like every fourth person in Friday's casually clad Bayou Music Center crowd was sporting some sort of Led Zeppelin attire. But in just their second show on these shores, Plant and his hand-picked crew of six ringers gave their audience enough nuggets from his old band's past to keep them happy, in versions faithful enough to keep them from squirming too much (or leaving).
But even the better-known selections from Plant's catalog, as well as a few precisely chosen covers, were usually altered and turned upside down so much that the evening was over the hills and far away from any greatest-hits revue. That seems to be what he's going for.
And Plant's band is good, in that way that it didn't seem like they'd even necessarily rehearsed all that much; why would they need to? Maybe they had -- there was an awful lot of gear on that stage, starting with ex-Massive Attack member John Baggott's bank of keyboards and laptops -- but Plant's six musicians meshed so seamlessly it seemed an awful lot like they were pulling these thickly textured arrangements from precisely that moment in time and space. (Magic.)
In a sense, they treated each song as a multi-sided room they were free to decorate at their leisure, leading "In the Mood" to become a dubby, jazzy meditation where themes and motifs would appear and recede (not bad for a five-minute pop song), or deconstructing Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful" into a slowed-down, heavily processed feat of syncopation that could have come from the new Queens of the Stone Age album.
Likewise, both "Black Dog," punctuated by Scouser Liam "Skin" Tyson's dirty slide guitar and Gambian native Juldah Camara's African kologo (African banjo), and "The Enchanter," where Camara switched to a one-string violin called a ritti, were eerie and atmospheric. "Where did that guy come from?" quipped the front man. But others, "Going to California" and "Bron-Yr-Aur" stomp chief among them, were pristinely realized using little more than acoustic guitar.
"Please Read the Letter" and Bob Dylan's "Funny In My Mind (Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die)" were just as simple arrangement-wise, but considerably more electrified, the latter a drone-blues dominated by East London jazz drummer Dave Smith's rockabilly train beat straight out of the Sun Records salad days.